In the first of an occasional series about great privateer race teams, Gordon Cruickshank remembers Ecurie Ecosse, the National team with International appeal and two Le Mans wins
National racing teams don’t usually inspire loyalties outside their own country, for obvious reasons. But the tale of Ecurie Ecosse, proudly Scottish from beginning to end, is one which inspired support right across Europe and America. Perhaps it was that fondness for the ‘underdog’, though at times the team had the best machinery going; perhaps for its strong visual identity, always smartly turned out in its unique dark blue; perhaps the knowledge that its finances trod a constant tightrope.
Balancing the bar on that rope was David Murray, an Edinburgh accountant whose passion for motorsport led him to begin racing, first in ERA R12B and then driving for Reg Parnell’s Scuderia Ambrosiana and also in his own Maserati 4CLT. Among his business interests was an Edinburgh garage, Merchiston Motors, and it was here in 1951 that he got talking to a young enthusiast, Ian Stewart. Both men had bought the new Jaguar XK120s, and Murray had the thought that he would like to run a team of young Scots drivers in Jaguars. He himself was over 40 by this time and under matrimonial pressure to stop racing after crashing his Maserati in the German Grand Prix; luckily he liked the idea of being team manager. He was also an innate entrepreneur, and soon raised a deal with Esso to fund the running of a team of three Jaguars.
What he needed next was two more XK120 owner-drivers to partner Stewart, and he began by selling his own car to Bill Dobson, a local would-be racer. The final human element came with the arrival of Sir James Scott Douglas. This larger-than life scion of an old Scottish family inherited, and luxuriously spent, not one but two fortunes in his short life, driving Ferraris and living on his yacht at Monte Carlo. Perhaps he was a prototype for Lord Hesketh in his F1 days, but without the respectable outcome. As the 1952 season approached, the rich and charming 21-year old baronet seemed an ideal member of the new team, titled in the continental style of the time with the French word ecurie, for team or stable. The other two Jaguars were repainted in metallic blue to match Stewart’s, another mechanic, Stan Sproat, was recruited to aid Wilkie Wilkinson, Murray’s partner in Merchison Motors, and suddenly Scotland had a national motor racing team, proudly branded with a shield bearing the Saltire, or cross of St Andrew.
It was soon clear that Stewart was their quickest driver; in fact he was recommended to Jaguar by Stirling Moss. As a spin-off, he bought one of the first customer C-types. In July 1952 he won the Jersey Road Race, beating the works Astons and giving the young outfit its first international victory.
As well as the sportscars, the team acquired an F2 Cooper-Bristol, thanks to Major Edward Thomson, a shipping magnate who anonymously supported the outfit until its demise. Both Wilky Wilkinson and Murray raced this car, Murray retiring from the 1952 British GP with a misfire. But the sportscars had achieved a solid base of class and race wins, enabling Murray to persuade the fathers of two promising drivers to buy C-types and race under the Ecosse banner. These were Ninian Sanderson and Jimmy Stewart (no relation to Ian), and since Scott Douglas planned also to buy a ‘C’, the team now had four top-line sportscars to field for 1953.
It was a good year. Murray frequently took three C-types to meetings, and the results began to accrue. Ian Stewart and Roy Salvadori finished second in the Nurburgring 1000Km, which the works Jaguars did not contest, while the Scott Douglas car managed a second at Spa. Major Thomson had also funded an A-type Connaught to help recoup some prize money in F2 races. In addition Ian Stewart split his time between works and Ecosse drives, and in the International Trophy at Goodwood he took the factory car to third ahead of the two Ecosse machines. Already the new outfit was a useful complement to Lofty England’s stable, and this put Ecurie Ecosse first in line when the factory disposed of its three C-types. At a total of slightly over £6000, it was, recalled Murray in his book Ecurie Ecosse, “One of the motor racing bargains of all time”.
By now the wider racing world had learned of Ecurie Ecosse, and in 1954 they were invited to the new Buenos Aires circuit in Argentina, where Scott Douglas and Ninian Sanderson did well to finish fourth behind two Ferraris and the works Aston Martin. But Ian Stewart crashed, and in his place Murray took on Desmond Titterington, a young Irishman who had been campaigning his own Allard. He qualified by virtue of having a Scottish mother; under Murray’s direction the team always remained a profoundly national one, and while ‘outsiders’ would be hired when necessary, Murray stuck to his aim of encouraging young Scottish talent
However, the improving Jimmy Stewart was soon out of action for the year, crashing John Wyer’s Aston DB3S at Le Mans. This did not stop the Scottish team’s record improving, the distinctive blue livery with distinguishing white ‘private’, ‘corporal’ and ‘sergeant’ stripes appearing all over Britain and gaining itself a keen following. Their successes were helped by having the redoubtable Wilkie in charge. Pre-war this dapper and cheerful little man was mechanic to George Eyston, Billy Cotton and the Evans family at Bellevue Garage, then later to Pamell’s Scuderia Ambrosiana, and he and Sproat kept the C-types competitive through 1954 when the works were developing the D-type.
Finance was by now more stable; the cars belonged to the team, and there were supply deals plus starting and prize money enough to pay the drivers some bonuses. But Murray remained a significant sponsor, and was briefly tempted by the suggestion from Aston Martin that he should run a quasi-works team in 1955. Always the shrewd negotiator, he used this as a lever on Sir William Lyons to clinch what he really wanted, to take over the 1954 works Ds for the following season.
It worked; though in fact Lyons and England knew well that the arrangement was a sound one for Jaguar too, and they agreed that their programmes would not clash, and that Ecurie Ecosse could borrow the works drivers when free. Ecosse had, in fact, become a Browns Lane ‘Second XI’ – highly significant in view of the factory’s plans.
As 1956 loomed, Lofty England told Murray that Jaguar wished to keep the team ‘D’s for development, and Ecurie Ecosse must run their two-year-old cars for another season. This didn’t thrill Murray, but by ordering a brand-new short-nose D he ensured that his stable had something fresh to tempt organisers to allow him entries. He had also gathered a versatile group of drivers: Titterington, the quiet but fast all-rounder who had driven for Mercedes in the Targa Florio and made his Formula One debut for Vanwall; Scott Douglas, an urbane contrast to the plucky but unruly Ninian Sanderson, and the experienced Ron Flockhart. With a swiftly growing reputation it was time to tackle Le Mans. With Mercedes’ withdrawal from racing after the terrible 1955 accident, the hardest opposition had gone, but Murray was determined to beat the Aston Martins.
It took Lofty England’s influence to attract an invitation to Le Mans for 1956, but it turned out to be the perfect result for both parties. With Stirling Moss and Peter Collins aboard, the works Aston DB3S had the legs of the factory D-types, but it was the dark blue privateer crewed by Sanderson and Flockhart which soon took a lead they maintained to the finish. A debut win for Ecosse brought international stature to the little team, still operating from its cramped mews premises in Edinburgh, but it also took pressure off Jaguar. D-type production had already stopped and it was proving hard to shift these purpose-built endurance racers; with four Le Mans wins behind them another victory would scarcely merit the cost of further development.
Instead, they announced their withdrawal and loaned the three works Ds to Murray for 1957, on condition that he would run a full World Championship season.
This was a major step-up for Murray, and required him for the first time to run cars at two races simultaneously, including a Mille Miglia entry for Flockhart – he was seventh when the fuel tank broke away and put him out. But at the Sarthe his team of last year’s cars faced a pair of Ferrari’s new 4.1-litre Testa Rossas and two 4.5-litre Maseratis, and even with the new 3.8-litre fuel-injected car for Flockhart and Ivor Bueb, winner with Hawthorn two years before, a win seemed unlikely. Yet within hours the headline rivals had retired, then both Astons, and the Ecurie Ecosse cars ran on to an undreamed-of one-two victory.
On the crest of his wave, Murray sent three Ds to Monza, to see off the Americans in the ‘Monzanapolis’ challenge and also collect some prize money. Inevitably the Indy oval racers won, but the cheeky act endeared the Scottish team to the USA. It was always a team which invoked enthusiasm. Home support had now crystallised into the Ecurie Ecosse Association, raising money for a Scottish motor racing fund, though Murray himself prophetically claimed he wished this to be a back-up for when he had finally drained his accountancy and public house businesses of money.
As well as charm when it came to raising money and stubbornness in letting go of it unnecessarily, one of Murray’s skills was spotting talent. Amongst the Scots names Murray added to his list for 1958 were lnnes Ireland and Archie Scott Brown. By now the team was also running a Tojeiro in the quest for lightness, still with XK power, and had bought a Lister-Jaguar. But with the coming reduction to a 3-litre limit for international sportscars, the Coventry six was about to topple from its pedestal. At Sebring both D-types blew engines, though on the good side this marked the arrival of Masten Gregory in the team, who would be a long time member. Indeed at Silverstone in the new Ecosse Lister he beat Archie in the factory car, later winning the Spa event where Scott Brown, his intended team-mate, was killed.
As it turned out, 1958 proved to be a season of reversals. Car failures at Nurburgring; the expense of a one-off single-seater Lister-Jaguar for the Monzanapolis event, which broke; engine blowups at Le Mans; Gregory’s destruction of the Lister at the GP meeting. It was all bills and few thrills.
For 1959, though still running a pair of Ds which were now in their fifth season, Murray shared his favours between Lister and Tojeiro, using the big reliable engines in home events. But again Masten Gregory crashed, writing off the newest Tojeiro in the only race for which Murray was ever able to employ another young Scot, Jim Clark.
In 1960 two new vehicles changed the look of Ecurie Ecosse. First, thanks to Major Thomson, came a Cooper Monaco, a light sports-racer with a Climax engine which won first time out. Then, the machine which visually defined the team for years, the sensational Commer transporter. This impressive mobile workshop, which upstaged even the big Grand Prix teams, was funded by the Association, and ably demonstrated just what support this little team inspired across the country. Graham Gauld, the journalist and historian who almost grew up with the team, reinforces this: “There was tremendous enthusiasm for motor racing in Scotland at the time, and national pride in the Le Mans wins. The team won the right race at the right time. What other supporters’ association has put so much into a team?”
Within the mews, however, Wilkie was becoming dissatisfied, feeling that he was not adequately rewarded for all his efforts. Le Mans had been a failure. Jaguar had loaned the experimental E2A to Briggs Cunningham, whereas Ecosse had only an ancient D-type to field. Nevertheless, as Bruce Halford, driving with Flockhart, recalls, “We were in with a chance. The smooth circuit suited the D-type’s simple suspension. We were right on schedule when the crank broke – Lofty told me later it has titanium rods.” But he was not dispirited. “It really was a privilege to drive for Ecurie Ecosse. Murray was a super bloke – I had the highest regard for him. No, cash never appeared to be short; I was usually on half the prize money, except for Le Mans, where Flockhart said I’ve won it before, so you’re on 40 per cent, I’m on 60!'”
The Cooper-Monaco acquitted itself well in a trio of American races with Roy Salvadori and Jack Brabham driving, but to cut costs Murray had sent Wilkie as sole mechanic. It was not what a co-director expected, and when Sir Alfred Owen invited him to join the BRM Grand Prix team, he jumped ship.
At the end of 1961 Murray sold the last D’ and, although Murray continued to chat up Lofty England just in case, it was the end of the Jaguar era. According to Graham Gauld, who inherited Murray’s records, Ecosse had entered 109 races with Jaguars, winning 57. Instead Murray tackled the 1961 Le Mans with the Cooper-Monaco and an Austin-Healey Sprite. It was all a long way from past glories.
Only a week before Le Mans, Bruce Halford had bad a nasty experience at the ‘Ring when the Cooper caught fire in practice and then broke it’s front suspension; then at the Sarthe he went off the road in the wet, as did the Sprite. But Murray, with considerable foresight, now thought GT racing would become important and decided to have John Tojeiro build him the first British mid-engined GT coupe, using money raised by a new support group called the Friends of Scotland. With 2.5-litre Climax power the first of these went well until gearbox failure at Le Mans in 1962, despite being practically completed at the track. But as a one-off it was not in the spirit of the regulations, the ACO told Murray later. He was not invited to enter for 1963.
Murray then had the dramatic idea of grabbing some records by fitting the second coupe with a 3.5-litre Buick V8. The result was a fast but alarming machine with which Jack Fairman touched 152mph at Monza, and which also tested the skills of Murray’s latest signing: Jimmy Stewart’s young brother Jackie. In that first year, 1963, Stewart was unpaid, but, even though Ken Tyrrell had already spotted him, Jackie signed up with Murray for 1964. In both the Cooper-Monaco and the Tojeiros, one now with a Cobra Ford unit, Stewart was clearly heading for the top, and when BRM offered him a contract, Murray let him go. But in Graham Gauld’s 1992 book Ecurie Ecorse, the future World Champion recorded his gratitude to Murray’s influence, even comparing him with McLaren’s Ron Dennis.
With the departure of a top star, Ecurie Ecosse was frankly out of the limelight. But David Murray’s inventive brain now turned to the new Ingliston circuit near Edinburgh. From the remains of the Cooper, which Stewart had crashed at Oulton Park, he built a single-seater to set the inaugural a lap record in April 1965. A canny idea, as were the pair of Imp-powered F3 cars the Major funded for ’66. But the Friends had regretfully now withdrawn their backing, and a major accident that year deflated the overstretched team. Edinburgh driver Bill Stein crashed the Tojeiro-Ford, which was now converted into a spider, and was seriously injured.
Only the Ecosse-Imps remained to fly the Saltire flag for the next couple of seasons, though they did bring to prominence the Birrell brothers Graham and the especially promising Gerry, later killed in an F2 race at Rouen.
Finally the immense financial drain on Murray’s businesses began to become public. In May 1968 he was summonsed for non-payment of income tax; but he had disappeared, leaving his wife Jenny in Edinburgh.
Though forever struggling for cash, Murray had always tried to clear his debts; that he vanished owing money was probably not planned, just a panic decision. He made for the Canary Islands, where Jenny later joined him, and he died of a heart attack there in 1975. There appear to have been no secret funds for his comfort; he was working in a bar to support himself.
Months after his flight he wrote to the Association, granting them the Ecurie Ecosse name, and, remarkably, they raised the money to run Brabhams in European F2, driven at different times by Graham Birrell, Richard Attwood and Torn Walkinshaw. But the team’s perilous state was toppled by a financial dispute in 1971, and the foIlowing March the Association’s President, the Earl of Elgin, announced that Ecurie Ecosse was wound up.
Such an evocative name coukl not lie dormant for ever, and there is another chapter to the story. But the tale of how Scottish entrepreneur Hugh McCaig brought the Saltire badge back into sportscar racing between 1984 and 1989, winning the Group C2 title in 1986, needs a separate telling. Though Saltire badges have been seen on British touring cars as late as the 1990s, it is still those glittering blue privateer Jaguars which leap into mind with the name Ecurie Ecosse.